The Commonwealth Court held recently that state police dash cams (Mobile Video Recorders, “MVRs”) are public records under certain circumstances and are not automatically exempt under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law (open records law) exemption for ‘investigative’ records. Pennsylvania State Police v. Grove, 1146 C.D. 2014 (Pa. Cmwlth. Jul. 7, 2015).
The Court affirmed an earlier decision of the Office of Open Records (OOR) which concluded that video from one state police patrol car, which contained no audio component, did not fall under the Criminal Investigation Exemption of the Right-to-Know Law. The Court also reversed and remanded a portion of the OOR’s decision mandating disclosure of a second video from another patrol car containing both audio and video components, permitting the state police to redact any exempt information (witness interviews) from the audio component prior to disclosing the video.
The Court noted that a mere connection to a criminal proceeding does not automatically exempt a record from disclosure. It also stressed that MVRs in and of themselves are not necessarily investigative information, and are therefore not automatically exempt from disclosure under the RTKL. In order for an MVR to be exempt from an RTKL request, the PSP must prove that the content (be it audio or video) of the MVR is investigative in nature.
The Court noted that previous OOR decisions categorizing MVRs as investigative records exempt from disclosure have been overruled. Also, although the audio/video distinction was crucial to the instant case, the Court did not go so far as to establish a bright-line rule that all audio content on MVRs are exempt from disclosure, but no video content is exempt. The determination of exemption hinges on whether the audio and video portions of the MVR qualify as investigative information.
The court held pure video without audio is a public record and obtainable under our Right-to-Know law absent any showing of any police tactic or similar info that would entail a security exemption. Video with audio is as well, except the police can redact out witnesses giving statements or others that may be recorded and not be aware they are being taped. This decision would be equally applicable to local law enforcement, and more than likely would apply to body cameras worn by police, if available (audio will be the concern).
The state police have asked the Supreme Court to review the decision but the Court has not announced whether it will accept the appeal. For more detail on the decision or on how to make a proper Right-to-Know request for these types of videos, please contact Craig Staudenmaier at firstname.lastname@example.org or Josh Bonn at email@example.com or see our Right-to-Know blog at https://www.nssh.com/2015/07/state-police-dash-camera-videos-are-public-records/